The forest-camouflage guardhouse across the concrete clearing seemed miles away. My adoptive mom and her electric sedan weren’t waiting for me outside the gate, where the commander had arranged for her to pick me up. Nor was Mom’s car among the line of other cars and buses leaving the arena parking lot. Sweat soaked my neck and beaded up on my forehead.
On unsteady legs, I moved toward the gate. It felt like nightmares where I reach for my birth mother while mech-warriors tear me from her arms and send her to prison for trying to help my dad escape. That happened when I was three. Yet the horrid ache returned to me nightly as a fresh wound. To spare me from an institution Mom adopted me and raised me as her own.
I picked up my pace to get away from the taunts that echoed from Dara and her crew on the steps behind me. I had to get outside the compound, which reminded me of a prison with its high concrete walls, concertina wire, and hidden cams.
Still shaken by the mess I’d gotten myself into, I also reeled over having just witnessed someone try to assassinate Tenn-tucky State Senator Cora Scott, my adoptive mom, in the middle of my life-and-death struggle with Morgan. What a cluster. I prayed no one would connect his escape to Mom or me.
She still wasn’t outside the gate.
While getting out of here sounded great, I couldn’t face Mom’s disappointment at my failure or relief that I was out of the mech program. I wasn’t out. Yet. But I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t need Janine’s probing questions either, or her attempts to comfort me as if I were the younger sister. At least with me officially out of the program, she wouldn’t feel the need to join the mechs to follow me.
Where are you, Mom?
I reached the guardhouse. Still no car.
The stocky guard with coal-black hair stepped out of the shadows and blocked my exit. Though shorter, she had the commander’s solid build and looked ready to take my head off—me, the true winner of the Spring Mech Tournament. She probably could. Even though I’d gone through grueling mech qualifications, I hadn’t completed my training yet.
I hung my head. “Sorry, Sandy.”
She grabbed my arm and spun me around to face the building. “You will be. Commander wants you back in her office.” She pushed me toward the mech building and that gauntlet of angry recruits.
“What’s going on?” I looked behind and still couldn’t see Mom’s car.
“Don’t cause me any grief,” Sandy said. Her thick fingers dug into my forearm, making me gasp.
She pushed me back to the building. “Whatever it is, I suggest you humble yourself. The commander has never recalled a washed-out recruit before.”
“Come on, Sandy, give me something.”
Dara, Rox, and Margarite glowered at me from the top step. They blocked the door.
“I don’t know, but good luck,” Sandy said. “For the record, I had my money on you.”
She pushed me up the steps. “Everyone out of the way.”
Dara looked like a giant next to Sandy, but the great amazon stepped aside. Sandy dragged me along the khaki-colored corridor back toward the commander’s office. My eyes watered. It was like getting a pardon from prison, only to have the judge reverse her decision.
“Haven’t you had enough?” Dara yelled after me. “Had to come back for more?”
I dropped my gaze to the concrete floor. Moving toward freedom had given me courage. Now, as my nerve bled away, I could only imagine what had gone wrong.
<Don’t be alarmed,> a muted bass voice said directly into my skull.
You know how when someone says think fast, you can’t? My brain scrambled to make sense of this male voice deep inside my head, given that I’d never heard a masculine tone until six weeks ago.
Sandy tugged me forward. “Don’t keep the commander waiting.”
I pulled back. Morgan, what are you doing in my head? It felt like the mech com-link that allowed you to hear another’s projected thoughts. I couldn’t imagine how to turn the blasted thing off, or how to talk to him without Sandy overhearing. I couldn’t let her or the commander think I was crazy on top of everything else. I considered that possibility.
<I haven’t much time,> Morgan said. <My brother hacked your com-link’s auditory implant. Your escape plan failed. Mechs are rounding up the other boys. Your mom’s in danger.>
I froze. I wanted to see Morgan’s face. Yet I didn’t trust all this craziness inside me, as if I wanted more than just to see him. His tone did sound comforting, though, the only really friendly voice since I ran the gauntlet.
Sandy yanked me forward.
<Sorry for being such a bother. I need your help,> Morgan said somewhere inside my skull.
I followed Sandy, shook my head, and mouthed, “No.” As if somehow, he could see that. I’d done my bit. I’d tried to help him escape.
The gravity of my situation sank in. Had Commander Hernandez caught the nurse helping the boys, or connected the escape to Mom? The entire idea had been stupid, a rushed effort because I really liked Morgan, despite having to fight him. I should have had a better plan, but I was not a planner.
* * *